Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Michael Schumacher on the phone in Japan: Jon Nicholson’s best photograph
Culture F1 Sport

Michael Schumacher on the phone in Japan: Jon Nicholson’s best photograph

I got into photographing motor sport through my friendship with Damon Hill. When we met, 40 years ago, I had a job in the marketing department of an office supplies manufacturer and he was mostly on a motorbike, either earning his living as a dispatch rider or racing at Brands Hatch. Then he switched to racing on four wheels – his dad, Graham Hill, had been a double Formula 1 world champion. Damon is a really shy bloke and it was important to him to be with people who weren’t just fascinated by his family history. I didn’t know one end of a racing car from the other.

My ambition was to work for Allsport, the sports photography agency. Eventually, I got a job there and stayed on the staff for three years until I couldn’t cope any more with going to Tottenham on a Tuesday night in the middle of February. Eamonn McCabe, the picture editor of the Guardian and the Observer, gave me a few shifts a week, and suddenly I was in at the deep end.

Damon and I shared an office in Shoreditch. He was trying to get sponsorship for his racing. The big dream was that he’d win the world championship and I’d be there to take the picture. Ten years later it happened.

I wanted to be the Don McCullin of sport. Everyone was shooting long-lens action and I hated it. People like Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz influenced everything for me. It was about learning how to work around people, using short lenses, not getting noticed, earning trust. In 1992, I started doing a lot of work with the Williams F1 team, where Damon was the test driver. Then Alain Prost came in for 1993 and Damon became the No 2. When Prost left, Ayrton Senna came in for 1994 – which was big news.

A photographer I knew called Walter Iooss had published a book about Michael Jordan, showing the world’s most famous sports figure in the bath with his kids, or on the golf course. I said to Damon: “We should do a book like this, about what it’s like to race with Ayrton Senna.”

It became a very intense season. Senna was killed at Imola and suddenly the battle for the world championship was between Damon and Michael Schumacher. When we got to Suzuka in Japan for the penultimate race of the season, Michael was a few points ahead. But if Damon won, we’d be going to the last race at Adelaide knowing that if he won there, too, he’d be world champion.

What we didn’t have for the book, which had become Damon Hill’s Grand Prix Year, was a picture of his main rival – not in his race suit or on the track, something a bit more intimate. At Suzuka I grabbed Michael and told him what I wanted. He said: “Fine, come with me.” So we went into his trailer and he said: “What do you want me to do?” I said: “I don’t know – just pick up the phone, maybe.” I was going to have two minutes with him and I couldn’t just have him staring at the camera.

He picked up the phone and sat down on the couch. Perhaps he called someone. I don’t know. But what really made it was when the fans outside crowded around the window to stare at him. It became a picture not just of him but of their reaction to seeing him.

The next day Damon won the race and we went on to the last round in Adelaide, where Michael knocked him off the track to snatch the title. Two years later I was at Suzuka when Damon finally won it.

A few years after that, I spent time in Liberia, Angola, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, working for Unicef, documenting conflict and the issues that would contribute to the spread of HIV. I saw some horrible things. But when lockdown came, I was at home in West Sussex worrying about whether I’d ever be busy again and doing the thing that I love. I would cycle through the woods on the South Downs, photographing the paths and the trails and the trees. Now I go out on foot with a 5×4 plate camera. You breathe the air and look at the trees and it gives you a bit of joy, makes you feel alive.

My book, Macchina, is the product of 40 years spent observing people’s passion for the car and the road and speed, their fascination with and dedication to the petrol engine, whether it’s the noise of a big old V8 on a two-lane blacktop somewhere in the US, a thoroughbred racing engine at Le Mans, or a banger going round a track in King’s Lynn. It was inspired by a classic book called At Speed, by the American photographer Jesse Alexander, published in 1972. I’ve always professed never to be a huge race fan, never been blown away by cars going round and round a circuit. I was always more interested in the human element.

Macchina by Jon Nicholson is published by Fyshe. An accompanying exhibition is at the Aperture Gallery, London, 9 May to 9 July.

Jon Nicholson’s CV

Jon Nicholson with camera atop a high mountainView image in fullscreen

Born: London, 1961.

Trained: Self-taught.

Influences: Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Robert Adams.

High point: “Putting together Macchina. All the ducks were in a row.”

Low point: “I don’t think I’ve had one. They’re all experiences, some not as good as others.”

Top tip: “Good shoes and a smile. And don’t carry too much equipment.”

Source: theguardian.com